First and foremost, DUFF stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend – which is a title that high school senior Bianca (Mae Whitman) discovers she has become. Though initially valuing her friendship with both Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), she realises that she’s being used, as the approachable, less attractive friend who boys use as a means of getting closer to the other two. Determined to impress her crush Toby (Nick Eversman), she knows she needs to grow in confidence – and so makes a pact with her neighbour, and unashamed jock Wesley (Robbie Arnell) to teach her how to up her game, while in return she helps him pass his exams. Though the latter’s girlfriend – the vindictive, pantomime-like villain Madison (Bella Thorne) grows increasingly more jealous, and will do whatever it takes to remind Bianca that she’s just a mere DUFF, and will never be able to transcend that harmful label.
This tongue-in-cheek endeavour is playful in its approach, never earnest enough to a point where it’s unbearable, with the ability to poke fun at itself and the high school genre, similarly to how Easy-A managed. The reason this works – much like the Emma Stone starring production – is thanks to an endearing, likeable protagonist. Whitman is relatable and charming and has a real aptitude for comic timing, and you simply want the best for her, and the film survives off that sentiment. It helps that she shares a palpable chemistry with Arnell, which allows us to root for and invest in their romantic narrative.
However her distinct charisma and personable demeanour does work against the film’s premise, and though our characters attempt to rationalise the term DUFF by claiming it effectively just means the least attractive in a group of friends, rather than somebody who is genuinely ugly, it’s still something of a challenge to abide by where Whitman is concerned. While her performance is impressive enough that it’s never too much of a distraction, it’s always lingering on the back of your mind. Bit like Ugly Betty, in that regard.
On the surface, The DUFF may well seem like a quite shallow piece of cinema, but Sandel just about ensures this always remains on the right side of superficiality, aware of the themes and ridiculing stereotypes accordingly. But that’s not to say this is an out and out satire or parody of the genre – this abides by tradition, and grows increasingly more cliched and predictable as we approach the latter stages. But even so, here’s a film that could well surprise you, and on occasion, may even just make you laugh out loud. You can blame that on Ken Jeong.